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Amrita Pritam

October 31st, 2005, fourteen years ago, Amrita Pritam breathed her last. The writer- poetess, who with her avant-garde outlook, was the first woman  to win the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1966. The  Padma Shri followed in 1969 and then the Padma Vibhushan — the second highest Indian civilian award — in 2004 along with the highest literary recognition given to ‘immortals of literature’, Sahitya Akademi Fellowship. Her unconventional stance towards life and powerful writing, the creator of Pinjar, Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu ( Today I Invoke Waris Shah), impacted moderns, like versatile poet, Nabina Das. In these lines, Das jubilates the inspiration provided by Pritam…

 

Love Story between Composing

by Nabina Das

 

You reached

out for the days

of waiting, still-live

cigarette butt-ends

on the expectant

ashtray (the smitten

one) that the Urdu

Bajra

Title: Footprints in the Bajra

Author: Nabina Das

Publisher: Cedar Books, 2010

We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”

**

Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.

Nabina Das

Nabina Das’s poems appear in Poetry Foundation, Prairie Schooner, Indian Literature (National Academy of Letters), Caravan, Sangam House poetry, The Indian Quarterly, Economic and Political Weekly, Dhaka Tribune, The Yellow Nib Anthology (Queens University, Belfast), and Six Seasons Review, among several others. Her third poetry collection and fifth book Sanskarnama (Red River, 2017, India) has been mentioned as one of the best poetry books of 2018 (OPEN Magazine). Nabina is a 2017 Sahapedia-UNESCO fellow, a 2012 Charles Wallace creative writing alumna (Stirling University, Scotland), and a 2016 Commonwealth Writers feature correspondent. Born and brought up in Guwahati, Assam, India, Nabina’s other poetry collections are Into the Migrant City  (Writers Workshop, 2013, India), and Blue Vessel (Les Editions du Zaporogue, 2012, Denmark). Her first novel is Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, 2010, India) , and her short fiction volume is titled The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (LiFi Publications, 2014, India). A 2012 Sangam House, a 2011 NYS Summer Writers Institute, and a 2007 Wesleyan Writers Conference creative writing alumna,  Nabina is the co-editor of 40 under 40, an anthology of post-globalisation poetry (Poetrywala, 2016, India).